The Making of “Stonebrood,” Part 3
Note: This is the last of three posts in which I discuss how I conceived and wrote my novelette “Stonebrood,” the lead story in the October issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact. A long excerpt can be found here, and the whole thing is available both on newsstands and for purchase online. Be warned that a few spoilers follow.
When I began doing research for “Stonebrood,” one of the first articles I read was a vivid piece in Discover by the journalist Kristin Ohlson. It’s primarily about the Ruth Mullins fire, a coal seam blaze that has been quietly burning for nearly a decade in Hazard, Kentucky, and it follows geologists Jennifer O’Keefe and James Hower as they investigate the area, a barren landscape with toxic white smoke billowing up from vents in the earth. It closes with a warning:
[Hower] notes that the Ruth Mullins fire is migrating slowly toward nearby Highway 80. If a coal seam fire burns through the road, asphalt could crack open and sink, swallowing people and cars and unleashing a hellish scenario that might finally make people pay attention to what is going on beneath their feet.
As a reader, I found the thought chilling, but as a writer, I could only say: “Thank you.” One of the most challenging aspects of writing hard science fiction is finding compelling ways of staging the ideas that drew you to a subject in the first place, and a highway collapse—which occurs on the first page of the novelette—seemed like as dramatic an opening scene as any I could imagine.
And in many ways, it’s that initial sequence—which plays much the same role as a cold open does on an episode of television—that makes the rest of the story possible. Reading over “Stonebrood” again, I think it’s a strong piece of work, but its action is almost entirely internalized, and it unfolds in a more subtle fashion than most of my other stories, leaving it up to the reader to connect most of the thematic dots. (In its tone and pacing, not to mention in the nuts and bolts of the action, it has a lot in common with “The Whale God,” another story about a protagonist dealing with unsettling hallucinations while trying to get a practical job done.) The opening buys me a lot of capital with the reader: it’s a self-contained, exciting set piece that clearly establishes the stakes of what Marius and his team are trying to prevent, and it provides a burst of adrenaline that carries us through the remainder of the first section, which is really nothing more than three men standing around a borehole. Most of my stories save their first big plot development or action scene for around a third of the way through, and it takes a great deal of effort to sustain the reader’s attention through the material required to get us to that pivotal moment. Placing the most compelling sequence right at the beginning lends some necessary momentum to a story that might otherwise seem a bit too introspective or subdued.
That said, there’s a risk involved in leading off with your most memorable scene, which is that the rest of the story will seem anticlimactic by comparison. Henning Nelms, the legendary magician, mystery novelist, and jack-of-all-trades, puts it best in a discussion of how to structure a magic act:
When you try to achieve a rising curve [of interest], keeping the beginning low is as important as making the ending high. If you start with a strong number, the next few effects will let the curve sag—and you may never be able to make it rise again. Dramatists know this; nearly every play opens with a scene that is deliberately dull. Its only function is to secure attention. If your first effect leaves your audience breathless, you will never be able to top it…Each peak and each valley should be higher than the one before it.
A story like “Stonebrood” is a kind of magic act in itself—it creates a mystery and then produces a solution with a flourish—and I knew that I had to be careful about paying off the expectations that the first scene raised. I did this, in part, by keeping the memory of the incident alive in the protagonist’s mind, and by making certain choices that tied otherwise unrelated story points back to the opening. In a flashback, we see how Marius, as a teenager, uses carbon monoxide to kill the gangster who had murdered his uncle. He could have simply shot the guy, but the image of that smoldering charcoal, which also ties into the smoker that his grandmother uses to calm her bees, reminds us of how the eight people died in the sinkhole. And it’s that kind of connection, as artificial as it might be, that allows the story to read like a unified sequence of ideas, rather than a succession of loosely related events.
Once I’d finished the research and come up with the general outlines of the plot, it soon became clear that writing “Stonebrood” was largely a matter of not screwing up the material I’d uncovered. I had a gripping opening; a memorable location, in the form of the blasted landscape above the coal seam fire and, in particular, the ruins of the abandoned ghost town nearby, a type of location that has been memorably used before by such works as Silent Hill and Dean Koontz’s Strange Highways; and a lot of evocative secondary material from the Lithuanian lore of bees. (The plot itself, in which Marius is haunted by memories of his grandmother and the sinister gangster Garastas, harks back to The Icon Thief and its sequels, and if I made use of it again here, it’s mostly because I had it readily available.) I’m happy with the result, and I’d rank it in the top half of all the novelettes I’ve published. It’s a type of story I’ve written before and will probably write again, and its interest, as usual, lies mostly in the details of the setting and the specifics of the twist. What I like most about it, though, is the tone, which seems to have been acquired, as if by contagion, from the moodiness of the setting: like the landscape in which it takes place, it’s brooding, mostly quiet, but with forces beneath the surface that always seem on the verge of erupting. I think it sustains that tone nicely, and it’s the opening cataclysm that allows the rest of it to work.